It is a truth universally acknowledged that the ambition of every serious working dog is to get into the house… When the hunt has a lawn meet, kennel-dwelling hounds instantly make for a back door left ajar, and can even be discovered galumphing up the main staircase. Spaniels are constantly trying to worm their way into the kitchen. When a top gundog retires from the field after a lifetime of valiant service, professional handlers will ask each other: “Has he ‘Got In’?” Has the dog received the ultimate accolade of being allowed to make himself at home beside the Aga? The answer is usually “yes”, but not always.
So why are small, non-working and not necessarily particularly charming dogs in the Yorkie to corgi range always allowed to live in the house, whether they have earned it or not?
Terriers don’t just get in, they are born in. As the owner of a busy boarding kennels and wife of a professional gundog trainer, Catherine Bailey professes to see dogs purely as part of business life. Yet two terriers greet us in the sitting-room. “Well, I think of them as the children’s dogs, really. We felt it would be nice for the boys to have a dog,” says Bailey, although the junior Baileys are more or less grown-up.
However, Duke and Diefer have not been banished to the comfortable kennel range along with countless spaniels, labradors and guest dogs. “The spaniels are big and muddy and too wild for indoors. I think of them as employees,” confesses Bailey. “I’m concerned for their well-being, of course, but they’re not family like the terriers. Diefer, who’s now 10, had come into our kennels as a puppy and my son, Josh, thought he was the nicest little Jack Russell he’d ever seen. As luck would have it he needed a home about a year later. He will turn himself inside out wagging his tail to greet you. I think everybody tends to humanise the little dogs. I see it all the time when clients are bringing their dogs to stay. The dogs are so special to them and I can understand why people are so attached to them. My two are great companions. If you are on your own in the house you feel safe, the slightest sound and they are up.”
With a final attempt at keeping her cool, professional image, Bailey adds: “But I’d like my Jack Russell a lot more if he could use a vacuum-cleaner!”
Of course, there is one famous Jack Russell who does do the Hoovering: Harvey, in the multiple-award-winning Thinkbox television advertising campaign. Thinkbox marketing director Andrew MacGillivray was amazed by the massive public reaction to the debut of Harvey, played by Sykes, who has since starred in Midsomer Murders. “The first Harvey ad was a lot to live up to as it really struck a chord with people,” says MacGillivray, “but the current one is being just as well received.”
Harvey couldn’t be anything other than a terrier, the breeds most likely to worm their way into our hearts and on to our hearths.
Ubiquitous in country houses and in the Westcountry, one terrier, Nettle, has offspring all over Dorset, Somerset and Gloucestershire. Her owner, Poppet Tricks, explains, “Nettle was bred by the Kindersley family and I’d had a much-loved but wandering relative of hers, so I was delighted when Nettle came along. She is a Border cross Jack cross Tibetan.
She is very well aware of her status, never comes when you call but follows in her own time! Nettle has had three litters. The racehorse trainer Caroline Keevil has Nettle’s daughter Buttons, who has now had a litter, and farrier William Bougourd and eventing breeder Charlie Micklem also have offspring. And I’ve got Nettle’s last daughter, Thistle, who survived a major heart operation when she was just a pup – so there’s no danger of the line dying out!”
Despite the empire-building tendencies of terriers, the ultimate example of a dog that has “got in” where gundogs cannot is, of course, the corgi. Perhaps because of their high profile during the Diamond Jubilee, there is a waiting list of people keen to join the Corgacy. Like HM The Queen, Diana King was given a corgi when she was a teenager. “I had my first one as a 14th-birthday present. With a corgi, you have all the things you like about a big dog but in a small package,” she says. “They are not a toy breed, however. They are not a little yappy dog and they are very good house dogs.”
But there’s a major drawback to having small dogs in the house: how do you live with their destructive impact on stockings and, more importantly, the ankles inside those stockings? “It’s true that corgis did have a snappy temperament. We have managed to breed that out of them now, but at one time The Queen’s corgis were renowned for nipping ankles,” says King.
According to dog behaviourist Nick Jones, “It is not a given that a house dog will become dominant, even when it is spoilt. It really depends on the individual dog. I think there are many dogs out there that are given a lot of privileges and don’t have a problem with it. But it’s inevitable that small dogs, due to their size, can and will get away with things. I see it even with my own dogs at home. Little Pip, the Border terrier, is allowed to come up on the sofa but Max, the wire-haired vizsla, is too big for that. A lot of people find the ankle-biters quite funny and laugh, which only reinforces the behaviour. A large dog is sometimes more distant from its owner, while the small dogs get more physical contact and eye contact, which is something dogs value, and a very close relationship can develop.”
Alison Mount thinks this accounts for the popularity of pugs. “They have great empathy with people. They are a part of your life and they do want to be a part of your life. They love being with you and doing the things you do. You see them a lot with horsey people, for example. Eventers often seem to have a pug sitting on the passenger seat of the horse lorry, and they are very adaptable to that. They travel well, so you can still have them with you when you are in London or abroad. And, of course, there is the social side of pugs. They are a breed that opens doors for you. Even quite straight-faced people unbend when there is a pug around. There are pug meet-ups all over the place now, from the original one in Green Park. The worst thing you can do to a pug is ignore it. You have to stimulate them.”
So all this parading of pugs in fancy dress may be justified after all. Britain’s first professor of animal psychiatry, Daniel Mills of Lincoln University’s School of Life Sciences, thinks it is inevitable. “These breeds have certain characteristics that bring out mothering instincts. There is the high forehead, big eyes, short limbs and snub noses. We call it the Cute Response. A pug is the classic of the type; the little wrinkled forehead even makes it look as if it might be worried,” he explains.
According to Mills, it’s not just the way the dog looks that affects us but the way it looks at us. He cites new research recently in from his colleagues in Spain. “A dog with a shorter nose actually has different vision from other breeds. Dogs with long noses, like gundogs and hounds, have an area of best focus that we call a ‘visual streak’, which is fixed towards the horizon. But a breed with a shorter nose has a ‘visual spot’ that focuses much closer, more like human vision, and that is very good for reading faces. These snub-nosed dogs become better companions because they can focus and therefore engage. It’s not that these dogs are particularly clever but they are perceptive and able to predict what we will do next. Dogs are very good readers of people.”
Nicola Fitzjohn-Moores finds that with her miniature dachshunds. “They are very good judges of people. They instantly fall in love or hate people. Tiger Lilly II is extraordinary. She absolutely hates plumbers yet she is fine with electricians. How do they know? They come out on the shoot and have bags of stamina, more than the gundogs. When we get back, the gundogs flop down but the dachshunds are still racing round. We have a flatcoat puppy, River, and the dachshunds have recruited her. They sit on their beds and River drags them for a ride round the kitchen, which is hysterical.”
Surprisingly, few of the country-house dog owners I spoke to were under any illusions about the nature of their relationship with their little dogs. They were well aware of being twisted round paws, but didn’t seem to mind too much. As a regular foxhound puppy walker, Sheilagh Williams knows all about stopping dogs from taking liberties.
However, when it comes to her tiny papillon spaniel, Miss Ellie, “She rules the roost. She is just four years old but has an air of grandeur. She has her bed on a chair in the kitchen and it is like a throne. When she is indignant about something she sits with her paws crossed. She takes her pick of everything. When we’re having a Sunday roast, my husband, Peter, will carve her off a slice or two for later. And in the evening she has to sit on an armchair next to him while he reads his paper, but if he takes too long she gets cross and makes a fuss. But Pete and I love it and play up to it.”
Williams appreciates the science behind this. “Miss Ellie gets away with it because she is so sweet and tiny, with gorgeous feathery ears! But she is an ice-breaker and sociable. She plays to the crowd and says, ‘Well, I know I’m gorgeous,’ and that’s great fun.”
So the house dog fulfils a role every bit as significant as that of its bigger cousin out there getting muddy in the field. And who is to say which is more important?